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Alta States

The Skicross factor

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It was bound to happen. Given the unmitigated success of snowboarding’s Olympic adventure — according to industry insiders, the halfpipe and snowcross events were popular “beyond expectations” with television viewers during the Torino Games — the IOC went looking for more Winter X-Games type events to add to their roster for 2010.

And it’s no surprise. After all, the Olympics have to support their television partners. And in recent years, the X-Games — that unabashed made-for-television dash-and-crash spectacle — has done much more to attract young North American viewers than its more established “Higher, Faster, Stronger” counterpart. Given that this is the very audience that marketers and advertisers are desperately seeking to attract, it’s a no-brainer to connect the dots. And members of the IOC, if not always the sharpest tools in the shed when it comes to progressive decisions, definitely know how to connect the financial dots.

So what if this smacks of out-and-out opportunism. So what if they’re rushing immature disciplines to market. Or that there’s no grassroots development to speak of in these new sports. Or even a development system at all. It’s all about the show. And watching young guys and gals bashing and crashing down the hill, it seems, is way more compelling to 21st century television viewers than anything else the IOC can come up with. As they say in show business, if you can’t beat them, join them…

The latest X-factor winner in this new events game is what the IOC now calls Skicross. Patterned on the boardercross model, skicross will feature heats of four skiers all vying with each other to see who can make it fastest down a course studded with gap jumps, banked corners and wild turns. It’s sexy, exciting and truly fun to watch. The crashes are unbelievable. And the injury rate can be shocking. But it makes for great television!

Put it this way — if downhill racing is considered the Formula One version of skiing, then skicross surely is the sport’s rendition of NASCAR-style racing. In recent years, I’ve seen everything from punch-ups in the finish area to season-long grudge matches where competitors dislike each other so much that they can’t even manage a civil greeting in the start zone. And the pushing, shoving and fighting that go on during a race are nasty indeed.

In other words, it’s perfect for the small screen. It’s an on-hill soap opera with its own good guys and heroes, its own villains and mischief-makers. It’s a snowy WWE. And it is sure to capture people’s imaginations whether or not they’ve actually ever put on a pair of skis and slid down the mountain.

And isn’t that what everybody wants? To make the Olympic Games relevant again?

But there is a strong whiff of irony about the whole thing. Created by the Fox television network to showcase the burgeoning world of New School sports that were too “extreme” to ever be considered part of the Olympic family, the X-Games has now been transformed into a living laboratory for the IOC. Where once they dismissed the X-spectacle as trashy and common, IOC officials are now falling over each other to find the latest-and-greatest event that they can adapt for their own use. If it’s popular with X-viewers, then it’s good enough for the Big Show.

Sadly, in their great haste to satisfy American spectators’ needs for high-speed jinks, they are turning their backs on one of the basic credos of Olympism: and that’s making sure that there is a well-established development system for youth and talent identification within the sport.

I mean, c’mon. The FIS, that great august body that manages the fortunes of competitive skiing in the world, believed so little in the future of skicross a few years aback that it assigned a pure racing discipline to its freestyle division. And given the sinking fortunes of freestyle skiing in the world (I would bet that there are now fewer international mogul skiers than bobsleigh racers), sending skicross there is like sticking a young toddler into a leaky boat without a life vest…

“Skicross cannot afford to go where mogul skiing went,” says skiercross visionary JP Baralo. “Over-formatted and lacking any semblance of creativity, mogul skiing has become a very boring event to watch. And it only became that way after the FIS got involved.” Those dangers, he adds, “are very real in our sport as well. Unless skicross competitors get together and form their own organization, we’ll probably face the same fate.”

Former local competitor Pete Smart also questions the freestyle/skicross match-up. “I was involved with the sport when the FIS first launched its World Cup skicross circuit a few years back,” he says, “and I was appalled by what I saw in Europe. Skicross competitors definitely need to agitate for their own organization.”

It’s also interesting to track the response of alpine skiing officials to this new discipline. In a recent conversation with Alpine Canada chief Ken Read (but before the news of skicross’ Olympic inclusion was made public), I was surprised to see how negative he was about the skiercross phenomenon. When I asked him if he’d ever endorse it, he was quick to reply. “It’s too uncontrolled, too dangerous — and too poorly organized,” he told me. “The risk factor is way too high for me to ever support it.” Kind of like downhill racing in the 1970s, eh Ken?

So what does this have to do with Whistler? Simple. If I were the program director of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, I would jump immediately into the fray and develop a new skicross program for young racers who were either tired of, or disillusioned by, conventional alpine racing. Forget the FIS — or whether the new discipline is freestyle or alpine. Get a system going. Teach kids how to race head-to-head. Show them how to handle jumps and whoop-de-dos and off-camber turns. Hire skicross veterans like Davey Barr and Aleisha Cline and Roman Torn and Pete Smart to develop special clinics for budding ski gladiators.

At the very least, all that high-tension, high-speed training is bound to make them better alpine racers…

Besides, no one really cares what discipline it is that delivers a gold medal for Canada. Whether speed skating or alpine skiing — short-track or skicross — Canadian Olympic medal winners are all given the same amount of attention and respect in the mainstream media. And that’s the way it should be.

Which begs the question: now that Skicross is a bona fide Olympic discipline and will be contested in the upcoming Games, what are Canadians doing to make sure we have contenders on the slopes of Cypress Mountain come February 2010?

From all indications it appears that Whistler is chock-a-block full of young up-and-coming talent right now. Whether in extreme big mountain skiing, or New School halfpipe, ski racing (yeah Michael and Britt Janyk!) or Big Air, a new generation of Whistlerites is imposing its style on the world stage. Now is the time to create a compelling, progressive skicross program for young athletes to test their mettle in this new discipline. And what better place to establish such a program than at Whistler? The opportunities are tremendous. The payouts could be enormous. But it’s not going to happen all by itself.

It doesn’t matter who does it. But somebody has to step up and take responsibility for creating tomorrow’s skicross champions. Somebody has to take a leadership role in putting together a viable road map for 2010. Otherwise, we face the very likely possibility of standing on the sidelines watching yet another medal ceremony with no Canadians on the podium…

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